As is the case with anything in life, saying goodbye is one of the hardest things to do in the world of football. Whether it’s to a coach, a teammate, or in this case, a season.
There are few things more difficult than closing the book on something special and turning your attention to the next chapter and the unknown that comes with it.
For the 2022 San Francisco 49ers and their devout fans who were a part of the journey, the misery goes beyond saying goodbye to a football season that was more than memorable.
For those who had a stake in this roller coaster ride of a season, the difficulty of moving forward will be finding a way to mourn the loss of something so promising. And that’s despite having the closure needed to have a proper farewell.
All signs pointed to this being the year that this 49ers team finally broke through and attained the ever elusive sixth Lombardi trophy. The roster was as talented as any other in the league, and even with the loss of two starting quarterbacks, they continued to plow forward and steamroll their way deep into a playoff run.
A 3-4 start that turned into a 12-game winning streak. The unprecedented run of a seventh round rookie quarterback piling up wins after being thrown into the fire deep into the NFL season.
There was something unique in the air surrounding this 49ers team. A palpable sense that destiny had finally arrived, and this was going to be the group that would finally end up summiting the mountaintop.
Then in the blink of an eye, all of those feelings of hope and elation came crashing down to earth with the echo of a thousand drums. The wunderkind quarterback who sparked an unprecedented run was suddenly stuck on the sideline, unable to throw a football effectively, after suffering a complete tear in his ulnar collateral ligament on the first offensive series of the NFC Championship game.
In that fleeting moment, you could feel all the excitement and anticipation that had been building for months come crumbling down. The 49ers juggernaut that had steamrolled its way to 12 consecutive games was now reduced to a shell of itself, trying to tread water with their fourth quarterback of the season in one of the most hostile environments in sports.
Staring in the face of the impossible, this team fought valiantly to make this a football game. Despite their strongest efforts, they were inevitably reduced to a team that did not have a quarterback who could effectively get the ball beyond the line of scrimmage on one of the biggest stages in the sport.
For a team and a fan base who had every right to believe this was their year, it was a gut punch the likes of which I have never seen in all my years of watching professional sports. A bona fide championship contender that was essentially fighting a heavyweight bout with one arm tied behind their back.
There has been a lifetime worth of postseason heartbreak for the 49ers over the last decade or so, but none could match the colossal feeling of emptiness that has followed this season ending loss in Philadelphia.
Due to circumstances entirely out of their control, the 49ers never had a real chance in this game, which in my eyes is far worse than a muffed punt return or a deflected interception in the end zone. As hurtful as the wounds from those losses were, there was at least a definitive outcome that was not blurred by being down a competent player at the most important position in the entire sport.
This special group of players that constituted the 2022 49ers were flat out robbed of the chance to do the unthinkable. And the worst part is there isn’t anyone to point the finger at and blame for the way things unfolded.
It was simply the epitome of the universe having other plans. That left all of those devastated in its wake, searching for any glimmer of peace of mind that could potentially be found in such an agonizing end to an otherwise unforgettable season.
Searching for that silver lining won’t ever eradicate the scars that are left behind, but it does open the door for the healing process to begin. As hurtful as the ending was, it will never erase all the lifelong memories that were created on the remarkable journey that got this team there.
In spite of a brutal ending, there was still so much good that happened along the way, and those accomplishments should not be suppressed and ignored just because the Hollywood ending didn’t come to fruition.
Think back to the moment you got the notification about the Christian McCaffrey trade. Or how about a complete sweep of the NFC West for the first time in over two decades. Watching the last pick in the draft rattle off seven consecutive wins, with two of those coming in the playoffs. Ending the Dallas Cowboys season for the second consecutive year.
I spoke with a few players on the team to get a better sense of where they stood with all of this. We discussed what their takeaways were from this memorable season, and how they will be looking back on it moving forward.
While talking to Fred Warner, he clarified that what his takeaway from this season was the tenacity that he and his teammates displayed by climbing out of a hole early in the season to string together twelve consecutive wins:
“I still vividly remember being 3-4 and having that feeling of this is a must win game in LA before the bye to get to 4-4. We didn’t want that feeling we had the year before when we were 3-5, and then getting to 4-4, picking up [Christian] McCaffrey. Going on a 12 game winning streak, that’s stuff that you’ll take with you forever. To be able to show your team, show yourself it’s not about how you start its about how you finish. You know obviously we want to come out to a hotter start next year so we are not in that position, but there is still plenty to takeaway all the way around.”
In my conversation with George Kittle, the main takeaway from the season for him was the collective effort the team made as a whole, and the growth they showed as a unit over the course of the year:
“While we didn’t ultimately finish our goal of winning the Super Bowl, we did beat the crap out of some teams. We were 3-4 early on and one game from going into the bye, to go on a 12 game win streak that says a lot about our team. The character, the effort that our guys put in every single day. Most of our team was healthy the entire year, you just really gotta applaud the guys for taking care of their bodies, ready to be available at any time. At the end of the day our best players played really well, and our young guys that needed to step up, a lot of them stepped up. So just to see that growth over the course of the season was just awesome.”
For Trent Williams, the word he emphasized was perseverance. Williams noted that while every team in the league has their share of injuries, he was beyond proud of the way the 49ers responded to the adversity they faced this season.
“Just perseverance man. You look around the league there’s a lot of teams with similar stories having injuries they had to overcome. Our battle was no different, obviously we suffered at one position more than others which was the quarterback position. But it taught us perseverance. We didn’t get what we wanted to accomplish but we did a lot better than what anyone could have imagined given the circumstances.”
The message was clear with all three of these guys. While their title aspirations fell short, there was still plenty of reason to hold their heads high following a season of 49ers football unlike any we have ever seen.
Given the way things shook out, the truth of the matter is that closure may be impossible to find for both players and fans alike. It’s perfectly normal to ponder what could have been had the 49ers had a healthy quarterback in Philadelphia, and how they might have fared should they have found themselves squaring off with Kansas City in Super Bowl LVII.
Even as those agonizing hypotheticals keep you awake at night, perhaps the lesson to be taken from all of this is to spend more time enjoying the journey. Because as we learned this season, that magical ride can come to an indefinite halt in the blink of an eye.